Thoughtful Giving

PERSONAL FINANCE

By doing a little philanthropic homework, those who make noncash donations to nonprofits over the holidays can make sure that their gifts go to the groups that need them most.

December 05, 2004|By EILEEN AMBROSE

No question, many charities at this time of year would prefer cash donations that they could use wherever the dollars are most needed. But what if you're short on cash?

You can still do good, and possibly get a tax deduction, by making other types of donations. Nonprofits say they welcome noncash gifts.

But what's desperately needed by one charity is a burden to another. And you're not doing any charity a favor by donating threadbare underwear, old boxsprings, worn tires, rusted water heaters or outdated computers laden with toxic materials. Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, for instance, spends about $500,000 a year getting rid of unusable donations. "$500,000 would serve a lot of people," said Lisa Rusyniak, vice president of marketing and development.

So before becoming a donor, do a little philanthropic homework to find the place where your gift will do the most good. Maryland Nonprofits makes this easier by listing online more than 1,500 of its member organizations at www.marylandnonprofits.org. You can search for a nonprofit based on location or activities, ranging from the arts and civil rights to medical research and shelter.

Once you've narrowed your search, contact the nonprofits to find out what they can use. Some charities publish wish lists, detailing items they want.

"What you have to give away may not help them," said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance.

For example, the Children's Theater Association would prefer you keep your old prom and wedding dresses in the back of the closet. But if you happen to own a building suitable for a theater and want to give it away, you would be fulfilling the Baltimore County nonprofit's top wish this year - a new home. "That would be a true angel," said Kevin Daly, executive director.

Other groups need the very basics.

Winter clothes, shoes and boots for men and women are in demand by the Health Education Resource Organization in Baltimore, which helps those affected by HIV or AIDS, some of whom are homeless. "Clothes are our biggest thing. We know it will be a very cold winter," said Luke Rivera, HERO's volunteer coordinator.

HERO also could use a spare washing machine. "We only have two washing machines and over 200 clients," Rivera said.

The American Red Cross of Central Maryland, on the other hand, can't use clothing. It wants your blood.

"A lot of people don't realize how distinctive blood is. There's no such thing as artificial blood," said Barbara Mason, director of financial development. The Central Maryland office, which also serves southern Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia, needs more than 1,000 pints a day.

Here are some other non-cash gifts that nonprofits say they could use:

The gift of time. Sprechen SieDeutsch? Or Polish? Russian? Czech? French? The Red Cross in Baltimore can use volunteers with skills in languages or computer research to help in its Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center.

Do you have a knack for business? Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake and Baltimore Station, which offers residential centers for homeless men in drug addiction recovery, say they can use volunteers with business experience to teach clients job skills.

Maybe you have a soft spot for animals. The Maryland SPCA of Baltimore needs people to spend time with animals, walking and training dogs, playing with cats so they remain used to human contact, or showing animals to prospective adopters. "It's fun for volunteers and great for animals," said Aileen Gabbey, SPCA executive director.

Or, make an even bigger time commitment and adopt an animal.

You don't have to volunteer alone, either. Baltimore Station's board president, Allison Barlow, suggests that a half-dozen friends or co-workers can get together to cook a meal and eat with clients. "Recovering from homelessness means reconnecting to the community. It's a really great experience for everybody," Barlow said.

If you use your car while volunteering, you can deduct your mileage - 14 cents per mile - plus any tolls and parking fees on your federal tax return. You can't write off the value of your time, though, or vacation travel, even if you do a little a charity work when not on the beach.

"If you help at the SPCA in Fort Lauderdale in January, there might be some questions," said Mark Luscombe, a principal with CCH Inc., a tax information provider in Illinois.

Food, clothing and other basics. Many groups like to receive canned goods and other items with long shelf lives because perishable food is hard to store. But there's just so much creamed corn someone can eat.

"We certainly don't want 100 cans of artichoke hearts. We like variety," said Teresa Ernst, special events manager with the Maryland Food Bank, which provides food for hundreds of pantries, soup kitchens and emergency shelters. Variety, said Ernst, includes canned fruit and vegetables, pasta and rice, and high-protein items such as macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and tuna fish.

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